The Charlatans

October 17, 2010

The Charlatans
Manchester Apollo

Can it really be twenty years since I got the train down to Northwich to interview this young waif sat on his manager’s office desk?
Can it really be twenty years since the deceptively young singer with the pudding bowl hair, Jagger lips, big flares and an electric storm of nervous energy sat there and talked about obscure underground bands with a terrifying conviction?
Can it really be twenty years since the Madchester thingy went into overdrive?
It was Tim Burgess’s first ever press interview and his no holds barred enthusiasm and lust for life were compelling. His band, the Charlatans, had been around for a bit, they had even supported the Stone Roses in 1988 but that was with a different singer. Tim had been taken to one of those gigs at the Manchester International and was talked into leaving his band the Electric Crayons.
Now with Tim at the helm things had clicked fast. He had only been in the band a few weeks and they had recorded the hottest demo in town, got a deal and were about to release their first single.
The Charlatans were swiftly welcomed by the Madchester boom-one of those great moments when people actually get the people that they want and the avalanche of talent rushed through the cracks.
Not since punk had there been so many young bands in a rush. The Roses and the Mondays had changed everything. These were thrilling times.
The next two decades saw the Charlatans as unlikely survivors- death, bankruptcy, fuck ups and even bouts of heavy illness in the band can’t crush this spirit and when Tim walks onto the stage with that winning smile and his hands aloft it’s a quite powerful moment.
This is not one of those fake showbiz smiles that dominates the modern agenda. This is an impassioned smile of old school love, the bonding with crowd and the belief in the redemption of great rock ‘n’ roll. There is an instant connection with a fan base that has come from all over the North West to fill the Manchester Apollo. I seem to spend the night bumping into wild-eyed maniacs from Barrow who are in love with the band and want to tell me about it!
The band are on the road supporting their eleventh album, ‘Who We Touch’- another great set of Hammond driven songs that somehow manage to combine their trademark sound with those deft little flavours that can only come from owning an eclectic record collocation.
One minute your swooning on their scooter boy- punk- soul melodies and then you have that niggling feeling that there is something off kilter and post punk going on in there. Could this be the only band in the world that somehow mash up the Rolling Stones with Curtis Mayfield and Section 25 and then release it all in an album sleeve designed by Gee Voucher from Crass whilst, fuck me, there’s the great Penny Rimbaud from Crass doing one of his great growling, Ginsberg infused poems over the track and yet despite this they still somehow sound like the Charlatans?
Live they have the place rocking from the start. The band are at the top of the game. I’ve seen them play many times over the years and this is one of the highlights. The set list is perfect, the new songs sound great and the atmosphere is buzzing. The Charlatans are not in the twilight of their career they are on a new peak. They merge the traditional with the underground and tonight are a celebration of British music. It’s hit after hit and then the really cool tracks off the new album that slot easily into the set.
From ‘One To Another’ to ‘Cant Get Out Of bed’ to the fantastic ‘Weirdo’ the Charlatans prove why they are one of the most loved bands on the scene whose tunes you still hear every night as you walk across town.
Martin Blunt’s bass playing lives up to his surname and his soul power riffs with that little bit of JJ Burnell tuffness about them are the fierce spine that melts the dance floor. Pete Salisbury, the Verve man, is doing a great job holding the fort whilst Jon Brookes gets over his Brian tumour, Tony Rogers’ keyboards are what gives the band its distinctive sound and Mark Collins’ Keef Richards on the dole guitar slouching is rock n roll cool.
But its Burgess that dominates- dressed like some kinda anarcho punk, waif scarecrow with his skinny pipe cleaner black jeans hitched up over his 14 hole doc marten boots and white vest- he looks like the skinny kid he one was who used to follow Crass around- he has not aged atall and his loopy dancing and genuine pleased to actually be here mask his iron will and indomitable spirit that has driven the band and its fair to say its audience through the last twenty years of ups and downs.
Burgess makes the connection that so few singers can, his endless love of music that sees him talking up Factory Floor, the Horrors, northern Soul, Stockholm Monsters, the aforementioned Section 25 and Crass into one sentence is astounding. He is a big part of the heartbeat of not only the band but whatever is left of the Madchester explosion that still shows no sign of diminishing. The fact that the band can still sell out the Apollo this deep into their career is astounding, most music scenes would have shrivelled up this deep into their trajectory with most of the bands struggling.
Burgess does another funny little jig on the edges of his Doc Marten soles, grins again and ruffles his jet black mop- the eternal pop kid surfing on the high octane of a great band at the peak of its powers.
The Charlatans are that rare thing, a true peoples’ band. And as Burgess stands there with his hands aloft feeling the waves of elation and emotion that fill the ancient hall of the Manchester Apollo as the enormous ‘Sproston Green’ grooves towards it climax it’s a powerful moment.
It’s this spirit that will see Jon Brookes back playing with the band within months of his brain tumour and has seen the band surmount all manner of odds that, frankly, no other band has ever had to deal with. It’s this spirit of adventure that sees Burgess stalking the frontline of music, bigging up the great Electricity In Our Homes or Factory Floor whilst still digging the Stones and it’s this spirit that makes the Charlatans fairly unique.
An indomitable spirit and great rock n roll.
Perfect combination.


Frank Sidebottom RIP

June 21, 2010

Frank Sidebottom

There can have been few funnier sites than a middle aged man with a bulbous papier mache head arguing with a small puppet version of himself before treading on a microbe version of himself. Not only hilarious but also skewed and weirdly surreal.
Frank Sidebottom was one of the last of a breed- operating outside the rules and with a mind so brilliant that its restless genius was never appreciated. He put most modern comedians to shame.
And now he is no more.
It’s hard to believe that Frank Sidebottom is dead.
He seemed too surreal, too childlike, too cartoon strip to be bothered with tedious, boring stuff like dying. But its true, Frank is no more because his creator Chris Sievey died of complications cause by cancer on June 21st.
Of course we must not mix the two of them up. There is no truth in the scurrilous rumour that Chris Sievey was Frank Sidebottom. I interviewed the pair of them on the phone for my ‘North Will Rise Again’ oral history of Manchester book and after about an hour of brilliant stuff from Chris I asked him about Frank figuring he must know something about the nasally comic genius.
The phone went click.
Dead.
A few minutes later the phone rang and oddly it was Frank on the phone coincidentally ringing to sort out an interview. Where Chris was full of funny stories from the fringes of the music scene, Frank was plain weird and hilarious- like a psychotic child running amok in showbiz and through his humour tearing apart the stupidity of that showbiz world that had snubbed him for so long.
His tales of Timperley- the Manchester suburb where Ian brown and John Squire had lived in their youth- were brilliantly skewed pisstakes of the mundanity of the rainy day. I was once in a TV studio and watched him do this utterly mental but utterly brilliant musical set in Timperley with a pick up band of lunatics in cheap suits- it was like the ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ bus trip.
The bizarre tension when you confused the pair of them was something that unwitting journalists had often mentioned and I wasn’t the only one with this experience.
Sievey hated talking about Frank.
There seemed to be some sort of rivalry between the two of them. Altrincham obviously wasn’t big enough for the pair of them or maybe they were the same person.
Now we will never know.
Chris Sievey had been on the Manchester scene for years. In 1969, as a 14 year old , after playing in teenage bands he had travelled to London and wandered into Apple records busking his songs to the later day Beatles. The George Formby loving George Harrison loved the songs but nothing happened as the Beatles were in meltdown at the time.
He was referred to Tony Visconti who would have done something but was too busy producing ‘Ride A White Swan’. Not disappointed, Sievey returned to Manchester, where he set up his own indie label way before anyone else had thought about doing that indie of thing.
He released loads of cassettes of his songs with half of Manchester’s musicians passed through his ranks- including a very youthful Billy Duffy from before his Cult days and future Simply Red members.
Sievey did the publicity for Rabid records in Manchester, was produced by Martin Hannet very early on and did some artwork for John Cooper Clarke. He was already a key figure on the fringes of the scene with his wild imagination and brilliant pop mind just too far ahead of everyone else plodding along in his wake. In pop, though, there are no awards for being great or first and Sievey was eternally frustrated.
His band, the Freshies, were perfect pop punk whose sole semi hit ‘”I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”’ Got to number 54 in the charts in February 1981 and was lined up for a Top Of the Pops appearance. Sievey was denied his dream opportunity when there was BBC technician’s strike- the story of his life.
The single, is nowhere near their best song. His cassettes which I have a bunch of, were stuffed full of great songs. Classic melodic pop-punk- the kind of stuff that sells millions these days but was too pop for punk and too punk for pop in those stuffy, regimented days.
He even invented a very early computer game but no-one know what he was going on about- yet again too far ahead. His fervent pop mind was a good decade ahead of everyone else also inventing board games, songs, musical ideas, schemes and scams before eventually he invented Frank Sidebottom- his curious alter ego whose papier mache head, shabby suit and nasally twang were a perfect vehicle for a series of bizarre weird gags that were dark, strange and utterly hilarious.
Sidebottom was always around, one of those off the wall characters that fitted in perfectly on TV shows, at gigs and in recent years touring with John Cooper Clarke in one of those double bills of genius weirdness that are increasingly rare to find in world were fake comic ‘oooh I’m a bit mad’ replaces genuine genius eccentricity.
We heard about his cancer a couple of months ago which was shock and were cheered buy his never-ending gigs that continued and his Tweets that dared to take the piss out of the mean disease- joking about his papier mache head losing its hair!
Two weeks ago Frank Sidebottom popped up at Bruce Mitchell’s (Durutti Column genius drummer and real Manchester legend) 70th birthday party at the Manchester town hall- looking as fresh faced as ever with those big round eyes showing little sign of the cruel disease. To be honest Frank had remained unchanged since he burst onto the showbiz scene a quarter of centaury ago.
He even did a gig in my local pub the Salutation about a week ago. Funny as fuck to the end.
Manchester mourns another legend.


Obsessive Compulsive…great new Manchester rock

June 5, 2010

Obsessive Compulsive

I don’t know if anyone saw that rant in the Guardian about Manchester living in the past by Fuc51 but day by day I’m hearing band after band that proves this rather elevated pub rant wrong.
The city is full of great new bands of all styles and if you actually bother to go out you get to see something quite special shaping up.
Obsessive Compulsive really break this perceived mould.
Manchester has an oddly lopsided history of rock.
When is say rock- I mean loud, feisty, high decibel, life affirming fierce music dressed in fuck you freak clothes- The high decibel, extrovertly dressed world of Kerrang and associated noisenik areas.
Everywhere you go in the city there are tribes of rock kids, emo kids, punk kids, noise freaks, long hairs and neo goths. There are countless bands and many rock nights across the city and the north off England. Rock is huge in Manchester, the arena will generally only sell out to rock bands whilst indie groups struggle to fill venues half the size. In the surrounding towns rock is the currency- the real folk music of these times.
So how come there is no big rock band from round here?
Arguably there has been a kinda rock core to the sea of indie that dominates the area. Joy Division are ostensibly a rock band, their influence is huge on major rock bands and key in the goth scene. Without Joy Division there would be a very different major league rock scene from the USA with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson documenting an influence from the band. The Buzzcocks are one of the key punk bands and there have been a handful of other noisier groups breaking free from the jangling soundtrack.
And apart from that?
Nothing.
Maybe it's because the indie bands get the leg up from a indie friendly media and the rock bands get ignored, maybe its because the rock bands are generally fans trying to emulate their huge American cousins, maybe it's because no one is looking here for noisy action. Maybe the rock youth are in awe to the American band juggernauts…it could be a combination of these factors. There have been some really good rock/metal/punk bands from up here but they can only get so far when there ostracised by the media and left off the transatlantic gravy train.
Well that could be about to change.
Obsessive Compulsive have got everything that's required to buck this trend. Their tunes are tight, tough and anthemic. They are heavy but pack a punk rock energy to what they are doing. Their songs are catchy as fuck and connect directly with their fan base. You listen and you know that this sounds like a potentially massive band who easily transcend the local band syndrome. They have the emotional raw power and they have the songs and they have the smarts and the work ethic to make this work.
Oh and they also have a charismatic front woman in Keli who Mancunian gig hounds may know from working at the Academy venues in the city. Keli has an amazing voice, somewhere between a powerful guttural and yet soulfull shriek and a throat scraping scream that also caries the great tunes from the band. Her voice is the sound of exuberant lust for life and rainy day frustration and it cuts though the bullshit like a knife.
She is a star in the making, she looks great and she lives the high decibel life. Her band are rock solid noise droogs who spew out a thundering and perfect racket and they got the songs.


Freebass

June 3, 2010

Freebase
Fac 251
live in Manchester

There’s some bass instinct going on in the house.
Two of Manchester’s most iconic musicians are driving their new project to an atmospheric, powerful climax. The perpetually gruff yet good natured He-Viking of Lord Hook and the permo cheeky, loveable Mani are creating something quiet special here and on this their first mini tour are creating quite a stir with their latest project, Freebass.
The songs a mange to reference their pedigree whistle pushing forwards. There is that brooding northern dark psychedelia meshed in with the effortless guitar pop shakedowns.There is also that twist if the twin bass assault and a welcome celebration of the 4 string.

Anyone who grew up in punk will know that the bass guitar is the king of instruments. Infact nearly everyone I know who grew up in punk learned to play bass. Albeit a one string bass technique that Peter Hook has turned into an art form!
There was a surfeit of great bass players in the late seventies from the iconic Simonon and Sid vicious schools to the bass heavy rumble of Jah Wobble to the greatest bass player of all time JJ Burnell.
This is worth considering when you watch Freebass, the band formed by Peter Hook with Mani from the Stone Roses and Andy Rourke from the Smiths. That’s a lot of bass players to have in any band and you wonder how all that low frequency is going to fit.
We may never find out. Andy Rourke is not here tonight but there is more than enough bass action to make up for it. Hooky, of course, takes the lead with his distinctive bass sound copyrighted through years of New Order still sounding perfectly crisp- those laconic, melancholic lines still cut to the soul whilst Mani, as ever, the cool as fuck ragamuffin provides that sturdy funky bass end that he made his own since the prime days of the Stone Roses through Primal Scream.
The overall effect is kinda like early New Order dashed with a flavour of the moody better end of early Goth that Hooky has always, cooly, been so fond of. I can hear some of the magnificence of the very early Southern Death Cult in there and some pure Manc classic pop, the Haven boys who have been bolted onto the band, provide the youthful intent and glorious soaring ovals and the whole experiment is very successful.
It’s easy to rest on yer laurels in rock n roll and the prime participants are out playing their back catalogue at other shows so its cool to see them trying something new.
Both bass players have earned the reputation by re inventing the instrument, they both sound great in Freebass but there are also couched in great new songs.
That’s Freebass can still sound as invigorating, energetic and inventive as this is a testament to their hunger and imagination.


Adam Ant and the Glitterband

April 18, 2010

This a story of musical legends, glam rock genius, pop brilliance, a virtuoso pop star attempting a long awaited comeback and a disgraced singer who has tainted a great back catalogue and a curious and strange evening in Manchester.

We are watching the Glitterband onstage in at Satans Hollow.  It’s a strange and interesting night that twists and turns as we await the arrival of Adam Ant whose meant to be getting on stage for a couple of songs at the end of the evening.

Adam has been putting in sporadic appearances on London stages in the last few weeks. He jumped on stage with Gary Numan for a version of ‘Cars’, there was a swift appearance with Zodiac Mindwarp and then last week he appeared at the Glitterband gig in London where he played a bunch of classic old Ant songs like ‘Red Scab’ and ‘Physical’ with his own new band. At the gig Adam looked and sounded amazing and the fact that he was playing the freaky old stuff made it even better.

The clips on youtube wetted appetites and the Glitterband audience is pumped up with old bondage punks, super freaky Goths and Antfans waiting for the return of the dandy highwayman to unplug the jukebox with his sex music for one more time.

Adam Ant is the great-lost pop star. Mistakenly labelled a pantomime pop personae and dismissed by ‘serious’ critics but for those that know he is a pop genius. Those first two albums, ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ and ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’ are amazing works. ‘Dirk’ was the ultimate in zigzagging art school rock- it was tough and weird but also fantastic pop- Adam was always one of the great singers and brought his weird songs to life with a deft melodic touch. The early Ants were the heaviest and weirdest punk band of them all and for a year or so were the carriers of the original sex, style, subversion spirit of the Sex shop punk rock revolution before turning into the unlikeliest of pop stars in the early eighties. Their fans were the antfans- the freakiest, heavy duty, looking crew in the country who were a blur of studs, feathers, warpaint and Mohicans before anyone else even knew what these were. They massed from all over the country or from the London punk squats and when the Ants broke through the disconsolate Antfans split to follow the Southern Death Cult and watched shocked as Adam suddenly attracted screaming teenyboppers- there is  a great description of this tour in the amazing Vague fanzine from back in the early eighties.

Adam Ant broke though with ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’ which was an amazing work- an avant-garde pop kaleidoscope. The album resulted from when Adam asked the late Malcolm Mclaren in to help with the band after the release of ‘Dirk’ he watched aghast whilst Mclaren stole the Ant-band to form Bow Wow Wow.

A desolate Adam phoned Marco and put together the new Ants and adding Malcolm’s ideas created a 3D pop soundtrack that gatecrashed the charts making most people forget just amazingly off the wall this music was.

Pop music in the early eighties was not like this.

Pop music in any decade was not like this.

Arguably even more off the wall than their debut the album was huge in the early eighties. Adam was good looking and dressed up making sure that the serious critics would always brush over his innate genius because good looking fuckers are never taken seriously in the pop cannon- re-listen to ‘Kings’ now and you will be blown away but its vision and its attractive, cinematic strangeness.

It’s because of these fantastic records that we are here- half believing that Adam may turn up and dust the venue with pop magic. We also half believe that he probably won’t turn up atall and privately hope he knows what he’s doing after his well documented battles with his bipolar condition—no-one wants him to make himself unwell.

All night everyone keeps asking me the same question ‘Is Adam coming?’ and I can’t answer because I don’t know.

Adam is not here yet and the first band on- Bad Taste Barbies mash of glam disco, transvestite clobber and over the top camp is both hilarious and quite brilliant , they are followed by Kid Vooodoo’s thrilling swamp punk blues.

The Glitterband hit the stage and sound great- they are a hotch potch of good players and ex members including John Springate on bass/vocals, Pete Phipps on drums and Eddy Spence on keyboards.  There are currently and confusingly two Glitterbands out on the circuit- the other one is key Glitter member John Rossall’s Glitterband and this one- both camps of course are not happy with each other and there is dark talk of court orders. Both line-ups, though, sound great.

It’s not like they have got enough problems trying to survive with the shadow of Gary Glitter- who took the glitter to the gutter- hanging over both of them. The disgraced former pop buffoon’s sad descent into paedophilia has tainted a great back catalogue of some brilliant singles and also tainted the Glitterband whose separate career had it’s own signpost hits in the mid seventies.

Gary Glitter was not the whole story though and his depressing and dark behaviour should never be allowed to obscure producer Mike Leander’s genius in coming up with the Glitter sound.

Born in 1941 the late Leander (who died in 1996) has one of the great unheralded careers in British pop music working at Decca and Bell records. Bell itself is a label whose very name conjures up the great days of early seventies glam whilst Leander’s own fingerprints are all over some of the classic lineage of British sixties and seventies pop like  Marianne Faithfull, Billy Fury, Marc Bolan, Joe Cocker, The Small Faces, Van Morrison, Alan Price, Peter Frampton, Keith Richards, Shirley Bassey, Lulu, Jimmy Page, Roy Orbison, Brian Jones,and Gene Pitney.

Leander’s skills as a producer/arranger saw him called in to work with Ben E. King and The Drifters as well as being the only person to work on the Beatles orchestration apart from George Martin when he arranged the strings on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ‘album.

He was also executive producer of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar ‘and in the late 1960s wrote scores for several films.

It’s an incredible track record.

One night he was in the studio working on some David Essex sessions when the upcoming singer called in sick leaving ten hours of dead studio time. Leander got on the drum kit and started bashing out a Burundi style drumbeat getting the engineer to tape the twenty minutes of drumming. Building on the tracks with other instruments he had ‘Rock n Roll Part one and two’ in the bag. He drafted in Paul Raven who he had worked with back in the sixties recording a few singles, before Raven hooked up Jesus Christ Superstar,

re-christening him Gary Glitter who became the faintly bizarre glam superstar of the early seventies coasting to success on the back of Leander’s genius. The fact that the records now make uncomfortable listening due to Glitter’s pedophilia is sad.

Leander also later worked with the Glitter band and that distinctive drum sound is in full force tonight decorating all their best songs. The Glitterband still also have that great drone sound that the producer patented back in the early seventies and are a great fun night out romp disguising the great dark glam rock that is the beating heart of their muse.

Tonight they even have Angie Bowie singing three songs with them, her croaking Berlin cabaret voice spins the set off in an unexpected direction and as a curio from the days when pop was really mental she is fascinating to watch.

But the real special guest everyone is waiting for is still not here. Apparently he’s on a train and he’s running late. The Glitterband end their set and Adam is still not here and everyone waits on but twenty minutes after the end of the set it’s announced that he’s not coming.

No-one is angry. Most people hope that Adam is ok and understand the potential stress of playing these gigs could be having on him.

Adam is meant to be playing London at the end of April- hope he can do it- there is potential for a great romantic comeback here…


The Stranglers

March 22, 2010

The Stranglers

‘I’m moving in the Coleherne with the leather all around me, And the sweat is getting steamy but their eyes are on the ground’ spits Baz Warne singing Hugh Cornwell’s claustrophobic and quite brilliant lyrics to the 33 year old Strangler classic, ‘Hanging Around’.

The atmosphere is electric, the band are in their third encore and the place is going old school mental. The Stranglers are back in Manchester for the spring 2010 sold out tour- a celebration of this band that is more of a strange cult than a mere group. there is talk of this being the band’s last tour- afterall Jet Black is now 71- but he’s pounding the drums harder than the new bands and the Stranglers don’t stop- they may talk about it but the band is as they sang on their last album, ‘Relentless’.

I travel a lot and everywhere I go I get the Stranglers conversation.

That hushed intense talk of esoteric lyric matter, suicidal career decisions, karate chopping bass ruffs and awesome songs that for several years made the band the best selling band to come out of the punk scene in the UK.

For me, like many a bit too smart, intense misfits The Stranglers have been an important part of our lives and their covert, strange, weird and wonderful world has become a fascinating enclave in rock music.

They were the nastiest, funniest, darkest, moodiest, weirdest, glowering bunch of outsider pop stars ever.  Easily the sleaziest, most off the wall band in the whole punk rock canyon. If you were taking magic mushrooms and getting off on punk rock and living in Blackpool like I was then, they were as near as damn perfect. The music was a brutal slab of angry, snarling punk rock psychedelia served up as three minute slices of pure pop magic- every song constructed from great riffs with unexpected melodic flourishes and an intro and outro that was another great riff. Most bands manage one good riff in a song if they are lucky! the Stranglers outros had riffs in them that most bands would kill for!

Their bad attitude and dark charisma was a neat extra.

They talked and sang about aliens, karate, motorbikes, Yukio Mishima, Leon Trotsky, heroin, Nostradamus, rats, ravens and alienation.

This was no average band.

History has remembered The Clash and pushed the rest of the punk bands away; retro features now re-write the history of the punk era around the Westway wonders. But as much as anyone who grew up with punk loves The Clash, it is a crime to see The Stranglers pushed aside. Their influence has been enormous and overlooked.

Maybe The Stranglers didn’t help themselves. They always antagonised the press and flew in the face of the curse of fashion. they were called sexist and they played up to the accusation winding up the press when in fact they were no more or less sexist than most of the bands from the punk era.

Their utter originality and influence has been largely  ignored by the media but acknowledged by a rabidly loyal fanbase and a generation of musicians who were in thrall to this creative unit who had wilfully defied fashion to carve out their own distinctive niche with a moody, belligerent bass and keyboard driven pop that was a great mixture of melodic, snarling rock n roll and sometime beautifully baroque.

There has never been a band quite like The Stranglers.

Denied credit by the media and rock snobs they relished in their outsider status and quirky line up of a black belt karate kicking bass god, a 40 year old ex ice cream selling drummer and a moustache bearing psychedelic, warlord keyboard player working with the suitably eccentric, laconic, lanky Cornwell- whose rich vocals are still one of the best signature voices in British rock n roll and were, with the Sex Pistols, the most commercially viable of all the initial punk new wave bands.

In the late seventies they sound tracked the times better than everyone else. I loved the Clash and the Pistols like anyone else did at the time but the band’s bass driven punk Floyd weirdness, aggression and sheer melodic nous hit a raw nerve like no other band.

Their inventiveness, originality and their surly attitude was perfect for my magic mushroom stained punk upbringing. The way the band were obviously not fashionable and existed with their own set of rules was perfect as well. The way that you could get into arguments with punk purist snobs just by owning their records made them even better!

The Stranglers were ahead of everybody musically.    Their whole composite sound was perfect- four lead instruments with Jet Black’s neo jazz pounding drums, Hugh Cornwell’s idiosyncratic guitar work that hinted at Beefheart before switching to scratching, scarping Telecaster scouring and Dave Greenfield’s amazing bubbling keyboards that were such a signature sound. Meanwhile JJ Burnell invented that bass sound- dredging the bass up to lead instrument with tough sounding, gnarled bass epics that a generation learned to play bass from. You can hear echoes of his bass sound in any band that cranks the bass up- from the Fall to a whole host of hardcore, indie or rock bands who reworked the bass into its rightful lead place.  Saying that no-one has ever got the bass as good as the sixth dan four string master though! And his hunched on stage shapes with the bass- where he becomes one with the instrument-  has been copped by so many other musicians- step up Peter Hook (a Stranglers acolyte incidentally).

The band released a series of massive hit singles and tough sounding leering albums in the late seventies that were stuffed full of songs that could also have been singles. Their melodic suss has been unrecognised by many taking the likes of Pete Waterman to call them the most melodic British band apart from the Beatles!

Their attitude was hilarious- grumpy old men who could stand their ground, they were charismatic, deadly and took on everybody and won.

And they looked cool as fuck dressed in black, like rock n roll ninja assassins come to cause trouble in the prissy corridors of pop.

They made the angriest punk albums with their debut, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, detailing the sewer life of their underground, steaming London of the late seventies and its follow up, ‘No More Heroes’, perfectly capturing the juvenile outrage of punk. In 1978 they swerved into a sort of avante garde and invented post punk a full year before Joy Division on their stark and bass heavy ‘Black and White’ (which features the best bass sound ever!). They then came on all weird-punk-prog-pop with ‘The Raven’ before going really bizarre on their aliens come to earth piece of weirdness ‘Meninblack’ before swerving back to crystalline Strangler tough pop on ‘La Folie’.

They then grew up and got more polished or maybe I grew up and got less polished! I’m not sure- the later albums still had flashes of genius but didn’t quite take over our weird world like their earlier works. In 1990 Hugh Cornwell left and they became a great live band, one of the best before finally getting Baz Warne joining in the 21st century to pull of really unlikely comeback with ‘Norfolk Coast’ and ‘Suite XVI’

Which brings us neatly to tonight’s sold out, packed show at Academy 1 in Manchester. Routinely ignored by the mass media which is still in thrall to the far smaller and less influential (although still great) bands like The Fall- the Stranglers take comfort from their fiercely partisan fan base that supports the band like some strange black clad religion.

The atmosphere is intense and the gig is joyous. At 71 Jet Black is still the powerhouse drummer and the set list is peppered with the weird, wonderful and plain genius anthems from their long career.

The line up has now settled with JJ singing again and his tough gnarled voice is a welcome piece of genuine aggression on ‘Go Buddy Go’ another song they have not visited for a long time. His co- vocalist Baz Warne takes all the Hugh vocals and sings them perfectly.

In 2010 you don’t think of Baz as a replacement. You think of him as a Strangler.

The fact that they can play complex long pieces like the bizarre ‘Genetix’ with Dave Greenfield’s great weird vocal and the utter genius, classic ‘Down In The Sewer’ again after 15 years is thrilling.

‘Down In the Sewer’ for me is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, the Stranglers’ very own anthem and a distillation of everything great about the band. A swooping, dramatic and darkly funny song, it has a twanging Ventures guitar break and a stub toed bass riff to end all stub toed bass ruffs. In the songs seething middle section Baz Warne and JJ resurrect the Stranglers famous rat walk on the stage and you were there back at the heart of Stranglerdom- that sense of outsider outrage and great twisting music, a disdain for everything and amazing songs. The stage is drenched in red and green lights and the seven minute epic burst at its climax- a pure Stranglers moment.

There were new songs in the set like recent single, ‘Retro Rockets’, and a cavalier assault of great songs from a never ending, relentless career that shows no sign of slowing down. Baz Warne rejuvenated the band and the fact that he looks like Strangler and can deliver the vocals with the same kind of menace as the great Hugh Cornwall stand the band in great stead. JJ is as charismatic as ever- doing the karate kicks and picking out those killer bass lines.

The band were easily as good as in their pomp. It’s criminal to ignore them any longer. It’s time to acknowledge the group’s massive influence and to stop pretending they don’t exist because it’s not convenient.

Many bands have their importance overstated –continually.  I’m sick of seeing my youth re-written. I’m bored off the linear narrative of rock n roll that tells us that the Clash made everyone want to be in bands. I grew up in those strange times and I know what people felt- I’ve met them all!  I’veproduced countless records where the band wanted the JJ sound. I’m bored of the lies that get told.

The Stranglers may not have been nice to media people at the time but their music made a massive difference. They were the sound of the real UK of small towns, they captured the frustration of the times with the high IQ smarts of disillusioned graduates with a darkly funny sense of humour that half of them were. They reflected the ugliness back at everyone and they made some great records while they were at it.

The fact that can still triumph in packed, big halls all these years later is living proof of the band’s genius and way that the public will not always be fooled by what they read.


The Brits reviewed!

February 17, 2010

On the night that the charade of the Brits strutted its pompous carcass across our TV screens and Cheryl Cole mimed out of time in one of the most joyless, sexless pop performances in pop history- a performance that made Posh Spice seem like some kind of musical genius, The Courteeners played a low key warm up show in Manchester that was a million miles away from the bombastic, bullying of modern pop music.

Cole’s tuneless song was mimed appallingly and had a dance routine that sucked all the sex out of the soft porn industry that is pop with a gurning, crotch thrusting display that looked more like going for a shit than some kinda fuck-me- tease that it was meant to be. Cole’s song also featured a section of a tune by Manchester singing legend, Rowetta, which was included in a breathless display of corporate arrogance after Rowetta asked her not to use it.

The story is that Cole’s management had asked to use the Rowetta song as long as they could have someone else miming it- Rowetta, of course, said she would come and sing the part herself and was brushed aside by the arrogance of the big media pop machine who just used the sample anyway with a dancer miming to it! I guess you can understand their fear of a real singer being let loose in their pop charade.

It’s not Cole that anyone objects to- afterall everyone in pop is blind ambition and not much talent. Cole is a pretty girl who is living the 21st century dream- that shallow joyless world of celeb/paprazzi/football boyfriend/tabloid life.     What we object to is the never-ending machine ramming her down our throats and the sheer out of depth displays of her meager talent. Lady Gaga, whether you like her or not, strutted around the Brits like she was born to be a star, Cheryl Cole looked like she thought Posh Spice was the ultimate in pop talent.

The pop machine hogs 99 per cent of the media flogging its dead horses and wonders why pop is broke whilst 4000 guests stuff their jowelly faces at the banquet- it looked like the last days of Rome in there and was a million miles away from music…

Meanwhile in Manchester, hometown band- the much-loved Courteeners, were readying their second album with a low-key hometown show at Ruby Lounge. The atmosphere- already buoyed by Manchester United’s 3-2 away win at Milan in the Champions League was electric and the band were welcomed like they had won the cup themselves and didn’t relent for nearly ninety minutes where they played most of their excellent second album.

The irony of this is that the Courteeners will sell more records than the useless Cole and they do it in the old fashioned way by having a deep love of music and the ability to write songs and perform them, songs that touch people’s lives and mean something to people in way that the Cole pop machine (despite some excellent Girls Aloud singles) which is more about outfits and bad posturing never can.

Courteeners frontman Liam’s voice has that cool mix of swaggering confidence and heartfelt yearning that strikes a chord and it’s not just with the usual lumpy lads. Courteeners gigs are packed full of women- there is something about the band- a poetic ruffian artistry and sensitivity that strikes a chord with the girls and by extent the boys who get all arms-around-eachother- loved-up to the anthemic choruses.

Liam sings and writes songs that become part of the patchwork of people’s lives- the ups and the downs, the loves won and lost, the poetry of living in the north applied to deceptively simple songs that have big hooks and melodies that are full of heart and soul- all stuff that that the bombastic pop machine could never understand and deliberately keep out of their shameful parade- afterall those jowelly pigs who lock Rowetta out of singing on a live pop show and replace her with a miming dancer could never feel the sort of emotion and communal thrill of music like this.

The Courteeners upcoming second album is an ambitious triumph and their spring tour will see them assume their position in the pantheon of northern music giants.

Another victory for the people!


Joy Division

October 29, 2009

This is a feature I did for the Sunday Times in 2007

 

 

 

Joy Division

 

 

When Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis hung himself on the night of May 18th 1980 few would have thought that nearly 30 years later his life would be getting made into a major feature film.

Released next month, ‘Control’ arrives with a whole host of critical plaudits. Directed by legendary rock photographer Anton Corbijn It was the most raved about film at Cannes film festival and looks set to be one of the classic rock n roll films. All the more remarkable because of the cult nature of its subject matter. Brilliantly filmed in black and white it is highly evocative of a very different era and captures the times perfectly and also  documents the short and tragic life of Curtis with some brilliant acting.

His band had released a critically acclaimed debut album ‘Unknown Pleasures’ on the late Tony Wilson’s Factory label and were on the verge of a breakthrough. The press and the band’s fiercely committed fanbase were enthralled by the group’s intense music and Ian Curtis’s deep, baritone voice and darkly romantic lyrics.

The Manchester based band came out of the ruins of punk and created a sound that was a key influence on post punk and Goth as well as setting the foundations for the whole Manchester scene before influencing every band from U2 to Radiohead from Emo to modern day indie. Its an influence that has echoed throughout the decades making them one of the most important bands of all time and a byword for any darkly mysterious music that dares to go deep into the heart of darkness.

After Ian Curtis died the band finally got their first hit single with ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’ and the second album, ‘Closer’ went top ten. They regrouped as New Order becoming one of the biggest UK bands of the next couple of decades whilst a legend that has been built up around their sensitive late front man.

Band mate and formidable bass player Peter Hook remembers the first time he and childhood buddy and guitarist Bernard Sumner first saw Ian Curtis.

‘It was at the Sex Pistols concert in Manchester in 1976. You couldn’t miss him. He had ‘Hate’ written on his back in big white letters.  You’d go over and say ‘hello’ to anyone because you had something in common with them- like having spiked hair and pants all ripped up. It was quite easy to strike up friendships at the time.‘

Peter Hook remembers a pleasant if intensely charismatic young man.

‘He was much more educated and middle class than we were, we were more rough and ready, more working class. Ian was more shy and quiet but he could be as wild as anybody especially when he had had a drink.

He was quiet and he was shy but when he would go on stage and go like the bleeding clappers! Which was shocking and inspiring at the same time.’

The band they formed, initially called Warsaw, were a rudimentary punk band but with a more somber twist. By the time they had changed their name to Joy Division people on the scene had started to take notice like the late Tony Wilson.

‘The first time I ever saw him he came up to me at Rafters and said ‘fuck you. You’re the bastard off the TV, you cunt.’ I asked him why he said that and he said it because I had never put them on the telly. He was really nasty, really confrontational. And this was when they were a completely unknown band. It worked. I put them on pretty soon afterwards.  I never saw him like that again in the 3/4 years that I knew him, he was this thoughtful schoolboy, an emotionally deep thoughtful schoolboy.’

Signed to Tony’s Manchester based label Factory in 1978 the band got critical acclaim as their music quickly developed. They started playing nationally and Ian Curtis began to show signs of a deeper illness with epileptic fits.

Peter Hook details the band’s confusion.

‘He was ill quite quickly from when we started and ill a lot. He was his own worst enemy, how can you tell the lead singer of a shit hot band to go to bed early and not to drink? As soon as the doctors told him to take it easy he rebelled against it – the more we told him the more he went for it and the more he turned into Iggy Pop on stage! His idol was Iggy Pop but Iggy was not epileptic! If we knew then what we knew know it would be so different but unfortunately we didn’t. ‘

There was one incident that Hooky remembers vividly.

“On the first national tour that we did supporting the Buzzcocks Ian had the longest fit. He was fitting for an hour and half- eventually we had to take him to hospital. We had to sit on him first. It was unbelievable, I was thinking, ‘Christ! He’s not coming out of this one’. Our roadie went and hid in the cupboard, he said ‘I’m not coming out he’s possessed by the devil that bastard.’ (laughs).

Ian was really shaking. It was frightening you’d think ‘shit, is it worth it’. But he wouldn’t let you stop. I think he thought what we had achieved was so huge to us at our time in life that if he stopped or let it go that it might never come back. He didn’t want to let everyone else down’

Bernard Sumner wistfully remembers his band mates descent into a very dark place.

‘The first time we realised that there was something a bit up was when he turned up at rehearsals covered in knife marks where he had slashed himself.  He had woken up and didn’t know what had happened. He showed us his chest with horizontal knife marks. We were going what the fucking hell have you done.’

There were some moments of intensity on stage as well.

‘He used to get pretty carried away onstage, pretty kinetic. At Rafters he started ripping the stage apart, ripping the floorboards and throwing them at the audience. I did think that was pretty unusual! People threw bottles back, which smashed onstage, and he dived in rolling around- kinda like Iggy Pop. ‘

Ian’s bouts of intensity contrasted sharply with his normal demeanour, as Bernard remembers.

‘He was the most polite person. Very, very interesting to talk to.  Very opinionated but not in a negative way. Not judgemental.

He was quite intellectual. He read William Burroughs and Nietzsche. Me and Hooky didn’t know what the fuck he was going on about half the time!

Just going by his lyrics Ian obviously had issues but to be honest with you we never really listened to his lyrics till he died.’

The band were recognised by the music press and growing fan base as the most important band of their era. Their serious music matched the mood of the post punk times. They were quickly seen as the escape route for punk and the future of rock.

At the same time the troubled singer’s life was fast getting complicated. The fits were getting worse, his was unsure of where to go with his music and his affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honore was causing the already married singer all sorts of guilt.

Time was quickly running out for the singer. His life was in crisis.

On the last night of his life ian Curtis was in turmoil. Before he hung himself there was a long phone call to the avante garde frontman of Throbbing Gritsle, Genesis P. Orridge. The pair of them had struck up a friendship in the past couple of years and there was talk of doing a project together.

‘I spoke to Ian on the phone that last night. He was singing ‘a song of mine about suicide called ‘Weeping’ over the phone. The tone of his voice was haunting. It was awful. He talked. He sounded anguished, frustrated and very depressed, a feeling that events were slipping out of control, I could just feel it straight away having been there myself. He didn’t say ‘I’m going to kill myself’ but it felt wrong. I tried to get in touch with people but technology was much more primitive then. I was calling everyone in Manchester desperately to go round and try and stop Ian but the people I was calling were not there, I was always angry that I could not get through.’

A couple of hours later Ian Curtis hung himself.

The underground music scene was shattered. The band was on the cusp of a breakthrough but Ian Curtis’ life had become too complicated.

Nearly three decades later this dark tale of a brilliant talent is about to be played out in cinemas across the country in one of the best rock n roll films ever made.

It’s a fitting epitaph to a brilliant and short career.

 

 

 

 


The Slits…live review

October 13, 2009

The Slits

Manchester Deaf Institute

Oct 12th 2009

In these strict times it’s great to see a band cutting gloriously loose and the Slits are loose. Not in an un-together way- their musicianship is amazing- bass goddess Tessa is awesome- big, loping, dub bass lines played with a fingered precision she has got to be one of the best bass players out there and the new members of the crew are equally fab. Guitarist Michelle Hill’s clipped scratching six string is so precise and the drumming has the classic Slits time changes nailed. Where the Slits rule over any other band, though, is their joyous, celebratory looseness- a deliberate capturing of the moment that most bands seem too dogmatic, too stiff and too scared to pull off.

This mostly comes from Ari Up, who is a dynamic force of nature. With her endless dreads and gold hot pants she cuts a powerful figure and her instinctive feel is fantastically opposite to the earnest plod of male bands with their whole dullard approach to music. Ari Up is so alive that the room brims with her glowing energy. The Slits make you feel super alive with their punk reagge party. If Ari Up feels like walking onstage and singing along with the music getting played over the PA she will. If she feels like inviting a drunk from the crowd  on stage to dance with her ‘pom pom; she will, if the Slits songs need a sudden time change from punk to dub to free jazz then they will have one. The band teeters on chaos but a deliberate chaos like the free jazz genius of the fifties. This is not a messy mess but a brilliantly instinctive sound tracking of he moment that pulls you in, a joyous celebration of life and sex that is always utterly compulsive.

Formed in the heart of punk in 1976 the Slits were friends of the Clash and the Pistols, they cut one classic album, ‘Cut’ that has the unique trick of never dating. They fused punk and reggae into one big party and made ‘femi rhythms’ naturally opposed to the plodding 4/4′s of bloke rock. Ari Up was a tangled haired, in your face teenage tearaway and the band were brilliantly going in ten directions at once. Their second album ‘Return Of the Giant Slits’ was esoteric freak jazz with dub undertones that confused nearly everybody but still sounds amazing to this day.

The reformation of the band was great news, it’s really cool to see Tessa up there playing the bass again and if her and Ari are the only original members it doesn’t really matter. The Slits were revolutionary they rewrote the rulebook then providing an extraordinary template for all the best woman to plunder in the last thirty years (and a big inspiration to a lot of bloke rockers who were felling it).

If in 1977 they were too free and wild for most people they almost sound like a pop band in 2009. With added keyboard player Hollie (daughter of Pistols drummer Paul Cook) there is a great dynamic onstage with her and Ari Up trading off vocals that are so imaginative and clever that it leaves you gasping.  Hollie has a natural charisma that is powerful enough not to be washed away by Ari’s tidal wave of presence and her vocals are perfect for the Slits experience.

The Slits stuff more melody and great ideas into their songs than most bands manage in a lifetime, their off kilter rhythms are dance detonators and the whole punky reaggae vibe has the hall bouncing. Fusing the best of both forms of rebel music the Slits have created a unique and brilliant hybrid that sets them apart from everyone else.

Of course they played ‘Heard It through The Grapevine’ and it it’s still an amazing version- for me better than the original with its time changes and hyper singing. ‘Typical Girls’ is devilish and the new songs from their upcoming third album are as original and brilliant as anything in their career

The Slits are a stunning live experience and the just released third album should hopefully see them breakthrough into a musical landscape that is potentially far more welcoming than when they were first running free around the circuit in the late seventies. That is if the cowards that run the radio dare to play something as thrilling and as alive as this.

In the meantime go and see the Slits live.


Youth Gang

September 24, 2009

Youth Gang

So young they have barely even got going, Youth Gang ooze an incredible potential. Just listen to these two demos on their myspace site… http://www.myspace.com/theyouthgang … and become enchanted by Ki’s vocals, She’s got an amazing, powerful voice that cuts ice and glass with its dark, emotive power. In Manchester there have been so few female singers- its always been a bit of a lads scene and the lads have made some great music over the years- some of the best but its great to hear a female voice in this sea of laddism.

The songs don’t fit in anywhere- they are so original- there is a hint of Johnny’ Marr’s effortless arpeggios in Nick’s guitar but with a harder edge. There is a flavour of indie before it became a byword for stadium landfill- that sense of making your own space and your own sound instead of following the herd. There is a sniff of northerness about them but it’s hard to place.

They also come with a great name fitting firmly into that tradition of great bands with Youth in there monicker like, of course, Sonic Youth, and Youth Of Today and Chimp Youth. They are working hard as I type writing loads more songs which should be up on their myspace soon. I am trying to sign them to my new Modern English label if I can convince the rest of the team of the band’s innate greatness.

I would keep tabs on this situation if I was you- this band are going to rule.


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